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Global inequalities on the beach

Two recent movies, Eden à l'Ouest (Eden in the West) (2009) and Paradise: Love (2012) highlight connections between tourism and the intertwined phenomena of racialization and uneven globalization as exemplified by the persisting east/west and north/south divides. Both movies shed light to the ways western imaginaries of paradisiac landscapes shaped by global corporate tourism policies and contemporary design are marked by histories of exploitation and global inequalities and by ongoing struggles for better futures.

Eden in the West by Costas Gavras follows the journey of an immigrant who attempts to enter Europe through the Aegean Sea to reach Paris. While crossing various borders, Elias, the protagonist, encounters people, authorities, and various landscapes including Greece's tourism spaces where the beginning of the movie is set. In the opening scene, Elias is seen stranded in a secluded nudist resort called “Eden Club: Paradise.” Caught in this leisurely enclave, Elias passes himself off as a tourist or as staff only to be traumatized when he encounters the drowned bodies of his fellow travelers at a nearby beach, which becomes a spectacle for the duly shocked tourists. The movie is filled with such alarming moments that expose the real-life consequences of policies of tourism development in the European south. Setting the scene at an all-inclusive nudist resort immediately underlines how current tourism development models rely on building eco-chic enclaves of privilege and “freedom” while erecting life-threatening borders at the same time. Overall, the movie highlights lethal European immigration policies in the Mediterranean that persist to this day, and how these create a complex landscape shaped by overlapping practices of military control, violence, surveillance, exploitation, hospitality, and tourism/leisure where issues of identity, citizenship, and sovereignty are physically contested, particularly in the liminal space between land and sea.

Screenshot from the movie Eden in the West that shows migrant Elias passing off as staff in the Greek resort "Eden Club: Paradise"

The second movie, called Paradise: Love, by Ulrich Seidl, focuses on Kenya’s ‘golden’ beaches to explore a different trajectory. While Gavra’s movie focuses on an migrant’s search for a better life in the West, Seidl follows the journey of a fifty-year-old, middle-class woman from Austria who is looking for love on Kenya’s beaches. In contrast to the dangerous journey of Elias, the lonely, retired Teresa seeks the well-worn path of global tourism flows that produce and commodify tropical landscapes along with “native” bodies. Following the advice of her more experienced compatriots, Teresa seeks local young, black men who also try to benefit economically from their erotic encounters with European women whom they call “sugar mamas,” which take place in luxury hotels, cheap hostels, and rooms-to-let. The broader inequalities the film portrays are exemplified on a tropical beach divided into two separate zones. A white, mixed-gender crowd is seen relaxing on sunbeds oriented towards the coast, while the black local men are standing tirelessly, hoping to make contact with them. Only the white tourists are allowed to cross the divide, which is constantly surveilled by the local police. This spatial arrangement leads the viewer to reflect on wider geographies and histories of European colonial exploitation of Africa’s human and natural resources and their legacies in shaping global divides and inequalities in the present. In doing so, the movie underlines the many ways that Western-led tourism continues to exploit the global South, and, like Gavra’s movie, it also exposes how everyday struggles for survival and a better life are deeply tied to spaces created by tourism, leisure, and their architectures.

Screenshot from the movie Paradise: Love depicting the social and racial divisions on the tropical beach.

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